Downstairs at The White House: Family Dining Room

Family lunches and dinners were frequently held here when both Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln were home -- and not at the Soldiers' Home. According to bodyguard William Crook, "Mr. Lincoln ate heartily but not to excess; he was particularly fond of certain things, especially apples, and Mrs. Lincoln always had a sufficiency of this fruit chosen carefully and ready at hand." Noah Brooks, a friend and journalist wrote: "When Mrs. Lincoln, whom he always addressed by the old-fashioned title of 'Mother,' was absent from home, the President would appear to forget that food and drink were needful for his existence, unless he were persistently followed up by some of the servants, or were finally reminded of his needs by the actual pangs of hunger. On one such occasion, I remember, he asked me to come in and take breakfast with him, as he had some questions to ask. He was evidently eating without noting what he ate; and when I remarked that he was different from most Western men in his preference for milk for breakfast, he said, eying his glass of milk with surprise, as if he had not before noticed what he was drinking, 'Well, I do prefer coffee in the morning, but they don't seem to have sent me in any.' Who 'they' were I could only guess." 1

Security guard William Crook noted: "At about eight-thirty he would join Mrs. Lincoln and little Tad in the small, unpretentious dining-room for breakfast, where a plain but sufficiently heart meal was served by two waiters who were white men, and who were paid personally by the President, who also paid the wages of the cook and his coachman and footman. There was little formality about the meal; the President loved to joke with his wife and son, and for the time being put aside the cares of his great office and his anxiety for the country."2

Elizabeth Grimsley recalled one occasion when Tad was upset by encounters with Union soldiers to whom he had been bringing pamphlets and flowers from the White House greenhouse. When Mr. Lincoln entered the room, Tad said in his mangled pronunciation: "'Why! Faver, such ungrateful soldiers! When I gave them tracts, and asked them to read them, they laughed loud at me, and said they had plenty of paper to start fires with, and would rather have a "posey."' His father took him in his arms, pressed him tightly to him, kissed him, and tried to console him, but it was days before the men saw their little friend's laughing face again, as he could not readily forgive ridicule."
Willie, who was seated at the table next to Mr. [Samuel] Galloway of Ohio, looked most sorrowfully at Tad during this scene, and then lapsed into a profound, absorbed silence, which Mr. Lincoln would not allow to be disturbed. This lasted ten or fifteen minutes, then he clasped both hands together, shut his teeth firmly over the under lip, and looked up smilingly into his father's face, who exclaimed, 'There! You have it now, my boy, have you not?' Turning to Mr. Galloway he said, 'I know every step of the process by which that boy arrived at his satisfactory solution of the question before him, as it is by just such slow methods that I attain results."3

Mrs. Grimsley recalled another occasion when "Judge David Davis, Colonel [Ward Hill Lamon], Major Wallace and other western friends breakfasted with us, and by degrees, and most naturally, the conversation drifted into bygones, incidents and anecdotes. Our lawyers in early times were in the habit of going out on the circuit, the courts being held in this way; this occupying several weeks, and as they generally travelled on horse-back, and were brought intimately together, by reason of limited accommodations, there grew up a wonderful good comradeship, not only among themselves but their entertainers." During the breakfast, one of the guests told a story which was clearly as the expense of Mrs. Grimsley and Mrs. Lincoln: "The landlady in a certain town in Tazewell Co. was particularly partial to both of these gentlemen [Mr. Lincoln and Major John Todd Stuart]. After serving a comfortable supper, she turned to Major Stuart, a remarkably handsome cousin of ours, saying, 'Stuart, how fine and peart you do look!, but Lincoln, whatever have you been a doing? You do look powerful weak.' 'Nothing out of common, Ma'am,' was his reply, 'but did you ever see Stuart's wife? Or did you ever see mine? I just tell you whoever married into the 'Todd' family gets the worst of it'"4

On June 8, 1864, the Lincolns were eating lunch here when a messenger quietly delivered a telegram upstairs that the President had been renominated by the Union Party convention in Baltimore. As a result, he did not learn of his own endorsement until after he found out that Andrew Johnson had been nominated for Vice President. Women attending the Lincoln's first state dinner on March 28, 1861 retired here when the men went to the Red Room for cigars.

Since the president's secretaries had strained relations with Mrs. Lincoln, they did not normally dine with the family although they lived in the White house. When a surprising request to join the First Family for dinner arrived in December 1862, John G. Nicolay was taken aback: "This is a startling 'change of base' on the part of the lady, and I am at a loss at the moment to explain it. However, as etiquette does not permit any one on any excuse to decline an invitation to dine with the President, I shall have to make the reconnaissance, and thereby more fully learn the tactics of the enemy."5

Some invitations could be more startling. Before he left Washington in 1861 to take up his position as U.S. Minister to Spain, Carl Schurz asked the President if he could bring his German-born brother-in-law, Henry Meyer, to meet Mr. Lincoln:
'Certainly,' said Mr. Lincoln, 'bring him to-morrow about lunch time and lunch with me. I guess Mary (Mrs. Lincoln) will have something for us to eat.' Accordingly the next day I brought my brother-in-law, who was greatly astonished at this unexpected invitation to lunch with the President, and much troubled about the etiquette to be observed. I found it difficult to quiet him with the assurance that in this case there was no etiquette at all. But he was still more astonished when Mr. Lincoln, instead of waiting for a ceremonious bow, shook him by the hand like an old acquaintance and said in his hearty way that he was glad to see the brother-in-law of 'this young man here,' and that he hoped the Americans treated him well. Mrs. Lincoln, 'Mary,' as the President again called her - was absent, being otherwise engaged, and there were no other guests. So we had Mr. Lincoln at the table all to ourselves. He seemed to be in excellent spirits, asked many questions about Hamburg, which my brother-in-law, who spoke English fluently, answered in an entertaining manner, and Mr. Lincoln found several occasions for inserting funny stories, at which not only we, but he himself, too, laughed most heartily. As we left the White House, my companion could hardly find words to express his puzzled admiration for the man who, having risen from the bottom of the social ladder to one of the most exalted stations in the world, had remained so perfectly natural and so absolutely unconscious of how he appeared to others - a man to whom it did not occur for a single moment that a person in his position might put on a certain dignity to be always maintained, and who bore himself with such genial sincerity and kindliness that the dignity was not missed, and that one would have regretted to see him different.6

Some guests had even less official connections than Schurz's relative. Anna Byers-Jennings came to Washington from Missouri in October, 1864 seeking a pardon for an imprisoned friend. She received the pardon along with an invitation to a family dinner at the White House. "That afternoon we went together from Willard's Hotel to dine with President Lincoln, and of all informal affairs I have ever attended, it certainly took the lead. I was seated at the right of the President, Colonel Turner on his left. Mrs. Lincoln, the two boys and Colonel Hancock occupied the rest of the table. When a dish of anything was brought, he reached out for it, handled the spoon like an ordinary farmer, saying to all in his reach: 'Will you have some of this?' dishing it into our plates liberally. And so it was throughout the whole dinner, as he said, truly informal. Mrs. Lincoln was very sweet and gracious. The contrast between them was so striking that I have them plainly before me this moment as they appeared then."7


Footnotes

    1. Noah Brooks, Washington, D.C., in Lincoln's Time, pp. 245-46.
    2. Margarita Spalding Gerry, editor, Through Five Administrations: Reminiscences of Colonel William H. Crook, p. 15.
    3. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, "Six Months in the White House," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 19 (Oct.-Jan., 1926-27): p. 53.
    4. Elizabeth Todd Grimsley, "Six Months in the White House," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 19 (Oct.-Jan., 1926-27): pp. 64-65.
    5. Letter from John G. Nicolay to Therena Bates, Washington, December 7, 1862, Nicolay Papers.
    6. Carl Schurz, Reminiscences of Carl Schurz, Volume II, pp. 243-44.
    7. Victoria Radford, editor, Meeting Mr. Lincoln, p. 88, from Rufus R. Wilson, Lincoln Among His Friends, p. 375.

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